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What Migrants Face In Libya

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An airstrike on a migrant camp in Libya the other day calls attention to a troubling fact. It's that there are migrant camps in Libya. They are typically filled with people from other parts of Africa or the Middle East, people who had been hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Elinor Raikes of the International Rescue Committee has been inside such camps in Libya. She joins us from France.

Welcome to the program.

ELINOR RAIKES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What are these camps like? Who's running them, and what's it like to live there?

RAIKES: I mean, I think the word camp is misleading. They're really more like prisons. I mean, they're referred to as detention centers. I visited two of them in the last year in the Tripoli area. They're appalling. The conditions inside are abysmal, severe overcrowding. The International Rescue Committee provides mobile medical services to some of the detention centers. But the ability to provide for, you know, the full breadth of basic services is extremely challenging.

INSKEEP: I guess we're talking here about, then, detention centers filled with people who don't want to be in Libya. And it sounds like Libya doesn't particularly want them either, if they're virtually imprisoned.

RAIKES: I think that's true, yes. I mean, the way that people end up in these detention centers is complicated. Often, they are people who have been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard while attempting to flee Libya across the Mediterranean Sea. The people who are intercepted by the coast guard are systematically taken back to Libya and brought into detention, which is terrifying that this practice is continuing because three months ago, the conflict in Libya escalated at an alarming rate.

And since then, there have been - there's a heightened state of insecurity across the city. And so people - migrants who are now in these detention centers are not only having to deal with these terrible conditions that existed prior to the escalation of the crisis, but now they are also unable to flee to safe areas of the city.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Then we have this airstrike on a location that, according to the United Nations, the warring parties knew about, but someone opened fire and hit this detention center.

I'd like to know, though, are people being detained with any hope of going anywhere? Is there any process by which they are applying for asylum in some other country? Or are they just sitting there?

RAIKES: There are processes that exist. They are sorely under-resourced and are not functioning as they should. But no, some of these detainees are able to return back to their countries of origin through a process that's managed by the International Organization for Migration. Others are identified as refugees, and a lucky few are able to be evacuated out to the detention centers by the UNHCR. Some are taken to an emergency transit mechanism that's located in Niger to the south of Libya.

Unfortunately, the numbers that have been able to be removed from detention by these mechanisms to date have been woefully low. And actually, what we've seen is that the overall numbers in detention have remained pretty stable because, at the same time, even as some people have been able to be taken out of the system, others have been taken in because the Libyan coast guard is still intercepting people and still taking them into detention even while the conflict is now worse.

INSKEEP: And I guess the hope of getting to Europe has been extinguished for these people.

RAIKES: The European Union member states have effectively criminalized search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean Sea. And we think that this is a mistake, particularly in the light of how things have changed over last three months. The fact that the Libyan coast guard is taking people back into what is now an active war zone is simply unacceptable.

INSKEEP: Elinor Raikes, the Europe and North Africa regional director for the International Rescue Committee, thanks so much.

RAIKES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.